Guest post by Christian Frandsen, BYU student and Assistant Curator at Writ & Vision.
Exciting—even radical—things are happening in the world of Mormon art and aesthetics. Certainly this reflects the recent widening of cultural horizons in the way mainstream Mormonism considers social topics like feminism and race, but the work of Mormon artists even in Mormon-est of all Mormon havens—Utah valley—is digging out a foundation of progressive aesthetics that extends well beyond the plot of cultural square footage that we Mormons have staked out. This is important, especially considering that one of these artists is J Kirk Richards—perhaps the most respected creator of Mormon religious art.
Two significant pieces that debuted this year—one an oil painting, the other a mixed-media drawing—hang as clear indicators of this new artistic territory. Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, by Richards, depicts a beautiful Eve, illuminated by a halo, contemplating the gleaming fruit from which she has just taken a bite. Behind her rise the golden trees of Eden at sunset. This seems like standard fair for a Mormon painting, but this is no blond Eve dressed in yellow blankets strolling among the tigers with her brunette Adam. This Eve is black and she’s unapologetically nude. There is so much that could be unpacked from those two simple artistic choices, but it is obviously significant that a mainstream Mormon artist has departed from our traditionally white aesthetic narrative to paint a woman of color as the mother of all living.
Just across the gallery from this breath-taking image of Eve hangs a large drawing by Faith Kershisnik entitled Temple. The composition here is simple. A short-haired woman serenely sits breastfeeding her infant. Again, the subject matter is easily imagined as a sweet illustration in an Ensign article about motherhood in which a lovely young mother gazes adoringly at her child, angled just so in order to let the viewer know she’s breastfeeding without actually showing her body. But this is no Ensign illustration. This woman is full-bodied. This woman faces her viewer squarely. And, just like Eve, this woman is nude. Kershisnik accomplishes something wonderful here. It is certainly important that this painting is a representation of the female body by a female artist—there is important work of reclamation taking place here. But beyond that, Kershisnik’s drawing conjures up images of fertility goddesses, the Willendorf Venus, and even Buddhist iconography and ties them into the familiar Mormon concept of the body as a temple. This pushes our collective Mormon imagination to contemplate more deeply the divine feminine, to seek out more universally for other well-springs of truth, and to reconsider deeply-held but problematic ideas about the female body, female sexuality, and the sheer and sweaty physicality of motherhood.
Kershisnik and Richards are of course not the only two Mormon artists who are stretching our imaginations and our iconography. Many other artists as well are using their art to help us grow in the way that only art can. Images are capable of effectively teaching and saying what Sunday school teachers and bloggernacle writers are not. For our readers along the Wasatch front, these paintings can be viewed through March 25 at Writ & Vision—an art gallery and used book store in Historic Downtown Provo.